Social (im)mobility

TIE readers might appreciate a piece I posted on Friday in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog section. I raise a few quibbles regarding Greg Mankiw’s recent philosophical analysis of inequality. Along the way, I cite an interesting empirical analysis of intergenerational wealth mobility by Duke sociologist Lisa Keister in her 2005 book, Getting rich: America’s new rich and how they got that way.

My Wonkblog  column doesn’t provide useful specific detail, but Keister’s table 2.10 provides food for thought. She examines wealth among respondents in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79). She examines mobility across socioeconomic quintiles among respondents who were living with their parents in 1979, and were (almost all) living on their own in the year 2000:

Adult quintile year in the year 2000

Childhood quintiles in 1979

Q1

Q2

Q3

Q4

Q5

Q1

45.4

26.7

10.7

8.8

8.5

Q2

23.9

35.27

20.1

13.9

6.8

Q3

10.5

20.21

35.1

21.2

13

Q4

7.4

11.4

23.2

33

25

Q5

4.9

6.1

9.2

24.6

55.1

As I read the table, there isn’t a whole lot of intergenerational mobility here. A child living in a household at the top quintile has a 55.1% chance of remaining in the top quintile, and only an 11% chance of ending up in the bottom 40%. The comparable numbers for someone in the middle quintile are 13% and 31%, respectively. And of course movement out of the bottom quintile is pretty much the mirror-image of movement out of the top.

It’s good to be born right.

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